BBC Scottish SO Recreates Early 19th Century Beethoven Spectacular

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven 1808 Academy Concert: Jan Lisiecki (piano), Malin Christensson (soprano), Clara Mouriz (alto), Stuart Jackson (tenor), Benjamin Appl (bass), Royal Conservatoire of Scotland Voices, BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Thomas Dausgaard (conductor), City Halls, Glasgow, 2.10.2016. (SRT)

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastoral’; Symphony No. 5; Ah! Perfido: scena and aria; Gloria, Sanctus & Benedictus from Mass in C; Piano Concerto No. 4; Fantasia in G minor; Choral Fantasy

Why would anyone want to recreate a historic concert in this day and age, especially one so apically long and unwieldy as the famous (and famously cold) night in 1808 when Beethoven premiered so many of his new works in Vienna’s Theater an der Wien?  Well, part of the appeal must surely be to try, however impossibly, to recreate some of the feeling of startled bewilderment that the audience must have felt as this array of masterpieces burst for the first time onto an unsuspecting world.  It also helps you to grasp a bit more of the scale of Beethoven’s genius if he was able to hold in his head and bring to creation such a huge range of moods and styles in such a briefly snapshotted period of his life.

It also makes you realise how different their approach to programming was compared to ours, and not just in terms of the gargantuan length of the evening.  Beginning a concert with the ‘Parstoral’ symphony, one of Beethoven’s longest, would seem crazy to us now, but in fact it sounded remarkably fresh to come to it first in the programme, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s performance sounded fresh too, with an airy sound around the slow movement and a Scherzo that rollicked after too polite a start.  What I most enjoyed about the opening, however, wasn’t the brightness of the violins, but the rich, deep underpinning provided by the basses and horns, a legacy of the Runnicles era that is standing them in good stead, and which also served them well in the violent storm movement, which transitioned into the finale with a beautiful sense of uplift as the main theme appeared, like the wind filling the tune’s sails.

The Fifth Symphony, too, had an energetic drive which initially sounded rushed to me but came to make perfect sense with a coda of such implacable logic that it was impossible to argue with it. The strings were tender in the Andante, and hugely impressive in the lightning speed of the third movement’s Trio; but it was the finale that impressed me the most, bristling with confidence and ringing with heroic assurance; a proper culmination that this work always deserves but only occasionally gets, and which I found much more moving than I was expecting to.

Jan Lisiecki was a flashy presence at the keyboard, but his approach to the fourth concerto’s tempi was undisciplined and, at times, downright reckless, indulgently slow in the opening solo and then consistently displaying the urge to run away with the music, something which conductor Thomas Dausgaard held in check only with great difficulty.  He made mincemeat of some of the keyboard runs in the first movement, and slowed down ridiculously (and for no good reason) in some of the quieter passages, before turning in a Rondo that was more wild than it was exciting.  Only in the Andante, to clipped and precise sound from the strings, did he tone down his approach and turn in some playing that was both tender and considerate of the ensemble.  He was on better form in the solo world of the G minor Fantasia (a written-out version of the improvisation that Beethoven would have done in 1808) and in the improvisatory opening section of the Choral Fantasy, which set the tone for a reading of real excitement which finished the concert on a high.

The Conservatoire Voices provided fresh, youthful support in the chorus, and they were matched by a very fine solo quartet, with Benjamin Appl and Stuart Jackson particularly strong, despite an embarrassing tuning fluff at the beginning of the Benedictus.  Malin Christensson didn’t sound as though she had warmed up properly before her first appearance, however, and much of Ah! Perfido sounded strained around the top.

Overall very satisfying, this concert was a recreation well worth doing and it was both historically interesting and musically quite enlightening, particularly when you appreciate that the composer would have been setting out his stall to his public and looking for some bankable success in the melee of music which, let’s remember, had never been heard before.  One thing you can be pretty sure of, though: it must have sounded a heck of a lot better in Glasgow than it would have done in the under-rehearsed, freezing cold conditions of that night in 1808.  208 years of interpretative tradition can go a long way!

Simon Thompson

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